Monitoring Lochcarron Flame Shell Reef

Latest update June 18, 2019 Started on April 21, 2017

After successfully proving damage to part of the flame shell reef (Limaria hians) in Lochcarron, Wester Ross, Scotland, leading to the creation of a Marine Protected Area, we intend to monitor and report on any recovery and map its extent.

April 21, 2017
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Whilst the MPA designation in Loch Carron is great news for the area, the designation itself means nothing without monitoring and enforcement. We have already been involved with a small number of suspected illlegal dredge incidents across Scotland. Concerned members of the public have passed on details of suspected incidents and our small group of citizen scientist volunteers have tried to respond by gathering in the location, hiring boats for surface cover and diving the sites to try to record damage in an effort to prove that this illegal dredging is happening. We are hoping for the use of an ROV through the Nat Geo and Open Explorer and the SEE initiative. An underwater ROV would greatly help us to be able to not only try to map the extent of the flame shell reefs in Loch Carron, but also to keep an eye on any recovery. On top of this, it would aid us so much to be able to drop down the ROV in an area of suspected damage to have a look before sending down divers, a time-consuming and potentially dangerous business! Fingers crossed we are awarded one of these fantastic pieces of kit! :)

In The Field

To mark the 2 year anniversary of the original Lochcarron flame shell reef dredger event, a variety of organisations led by Open Seas decided to hold an event celebrating the area. This also happened to coincide with the date that the Lochcarron MPA was officially put in place - 19-5-19. Some of the divers who had been present at this initial incident gathered again, along with MSP Maree Todd, representatives from SNH, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Surfers Against Sewage, Ullapool Sea Savers, Open Seas, amongst others to celebrate. Sustainably caught seafood provided by local companies Keltic Seafare and Okran Oysters were prepared and served by the Plockton Hotel following a 'trip on the water'. Divers dived the same location as two years ago to view any reef recovery, snorkellers (including the MSP herself!) took the plunge at North Strome slip and others enjoyed a trip by various boats including a local creel fisherman to experience what this beautiful part of the country can provide.

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Fridays 2 Loch Carron MPA dives, 95 minutes compressed into a 4+minutes film. Starring Limaria hians, Bob Squid! & dive buddies Chris & Neil. Also on YouTube

Posted by Howard Wood on Saturday, May 18, 2019

To add to the push we made to the newspapers and other media outlets in the immediate aftermath of the dredge incident, we also produced a short video trying to highlight some of the issues that this event has raised and some of our thoughts on what needs to be done to protect our inshore waters including Lochcarron.

Expedition Background

On the 21st April 2017, a small band of SCUBA divers from across the UK descended into the cold waters of Lochcarron, Wester Ross, Scotland. We had come together in response to a call from local Marine Biologist, Sue Scott, who had witnessed a scallop dredger working in an area known to have a rare and fragile flame shell reef. These reefs are a hugely significant habitat for many, many species, including commercially important animals such as king scallops (Pecten maximus) and many species of white fish such as cod (Gadus morhua). Flame shells (Limaria hians) are a beautiful type of bivalve that, using their byssus threads, build intricate nests from detritus and gravel, pieces of shell, even rubbish, and when living with other flame shells, can cover huge areas of the seabed in a static mat that binds the seabed and stops it from continually shifting with the currents. This in turn leads to many species of crustaceans, nudibranchs, hydroids, bryozoan, echinoderms, fish and a vast array of others being able to colonise areas that they wouldn't otherwise be able to.

Flame shells reefs are known to be a hugely important nursery ground for many species and as such have been afforded the title of a Priority Marine Feature (PMF) to be protected by legislation. Unfortunately, despite being aware of the flame shell reef in Lochcarron, the Scottish Government had not inluded the area in its' designations of MPA's across Scotland a few years earlier.

As a recreational diver, I have dived Lochcarron many times over the past 15 years or so and was disheartened to say the least to hear of the potential damage caused by a dredger, so I was keen to be part of the team that would try to document the damage. After meeting the night before and discussing a plan of action, five SCUBA divers including myself found ourselves descending down through the fast running waters of Lochcarron having been dropped off from a boat at rough coordinates we knew the dredger to have been working, hoping to find evidence of the damage caused by scallop dredging, but also dreading what we would find.

On reaching the seabed approximately 20m below the surface, we saw an area of healthy, undamaged flame shell reef but metres further on, an edge in the reef running straight into the distance - evidence of where the metal dredges had been towed through the reef a few days before. The destruction was awful to witness. Countless thousands of dead and dying flame shells littered the seabed, along with dead urchins and other bivalves including king scallops themselves and Icelandic Cyprine (Arctica islandica) another PMF and possibly one of the longest lived animals on earth. Apparently there are Icelandic Cyprine alive today that were hatched in the late 1700s! The entire seabed had been turned over as if ploughed - no flame shell nests were present, boulders had been tumbled across the seabed as the iron teeth of the dredges dug down to 'scare' scallops into the heavy, chain-link nets.

We took photos and video of the dredged area and surfaced feeling disgusted by the damage but pleased that we had located it. Videos and photos of the damage were taken up by various TV stations and newspapers and a petition was started to try to get the goverment to act to save these fragile habitats before it is too late. The Scottish Government did react and a short time later, an emergency MPA was created to protect Lochcarron which was later made permanent.

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